Thirty years ago, Lewis Mumford said of post World War II development, “the end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set.” The whole wicked, sprawling, megalopolitan mess, he gloomily predicted, would completely demoralize mankind and lead to nuclear holocaust.
It hasn’t come to that, but what Mumford deplored was just the beginning of a process that, instead of blowing up the world, has nearly wrecked the human habitat in America. Ever-busy, ever-building, ever-in-motion, ever-throwing-out the old for the new, we have hardly paused to think about what we are so busy building, and what we have thrown away. Meanwhile, the everyday landscape becomes more nightmarish and unmanageable each year. For many, the word development itself has become a dirty word.
Eighty percent of everything ever build in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading—the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth.”
The newspaper headlines may shout about global warming, extinctions of living species, the devastation of rain forests, and other world-wide catastrophes, but Americans evince a striking complacency when it comes to their everyday environment and the growing calamity that it represents.
Kunstler was writing in the early 1990s. While I think there have been some areas since where we’ve recovered some of traditional and ecologically-conscience construction, our basic growth pattern remains the same: expand outwards until we consume every last free and open space and replace it with ever-denser townhomes, ever-closer “detached” homes on ever-smaller plots, within ever-more random and disconnected suburban cul-de-sacs undeserving of the name “neighborhood,” because they are places devoid of neighborly intimacy.
Spending the summer in Europe was eye-opening, noticing that it’s possible to have cities and towns and also rural areas—that we can choose to stop building suburbs and try building cities and towns like we did prior to the last century’s wars.